TAMPA PALMS — A hearing officer this week upheld the city's plans for a bridge over Interstate 75, a development that is certain to prolong a legal battle into its third year.
Now the planned link from New Tampa Boulevard to Commerce Park Boulevard is slated for another round of discussion that could go before county commissioners in January.
Warren Dixon and Andrea Braboy of Tampa Palms have been trying to stop the bridge since city officials revived the dormant project in 2008. The couple live off Tampa Palms Boulevard, which stands to see a dramatic increase in traffic as motorists use the bridge to find alternatives to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
City officials have long maintained the bridge will help New Tampa overcome a deficiency in connecting roads, a condition that forces far too much traffic onto Bruce B. Downs.
As the bridge was included in an early development agreement, city attorney Chip Fletcher said Tampa has no choice.
"We've got an obligation to build the bridge," he said, not only because the developers paid impact fees, but also "to improve traffic circulation in New Tampa."
For a while, the bridge was planned as part of an east-west connector that would carry drivers to Interstate 275. But the east-west road was shelved because of a lack of funding.
With news that the city still wanted to build the bridge, Dixon and Braboy looked for ways to stop it. Joined by West Meadows resident Evelyn Romano, they challenged the project's wetlands permit from the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission in 2009.
Since then, the matter has bounced several times from the Hillsborough County Commission, which serves as the EPC's governing board, to an EPC hearing officer. Along the way Dixon and Braboy were dropped as parties. But Dixon, a retired attorney, continues to represent Romano.
In March, the hearing officer approved the permit and sent it to the County Commission for a final vote. But the commission, after hearing testimony in April from angry residents, voted 4-0 to send the matter back to the hearing officer.
In a 21-page proposed order released on Monday, hearing officer John W. Voelpel wrote that "the preponderance of evidence in this appeal supports the conclusion that the wetland permit complies with the EPC Act and EPC rules."
While opponents say the bridge and the traffic it will bring amount to a nuisance for residents of Tampa Palms and West Meadows, Voelpel defined nuisance as something that directly pollutes the air, water or soil.
"The hearing officer did what the city asked them to," Dixon said, contending that the EPC staff is being allowed to select whatever criteria they choose to evaluate the permit, without considering issues of public health and safety.
In his argument to the County Commission, Dixon said, "I'm going to tell them I think this order disregarded their instructions and is a slap in their face."
Both sides have time to submit legal briefs before the County Commission meeting, which could happen as soon as Jan. 20.
Dixon estimated he has spent more than $125,000 worth of work hours and $7,000 in expenses to fight the bridge.
The dispute is costing taxpayers as well, as the city has hired outside counsel. "I can tell you it's significant," Fletcher said. While unable to calculate the full cost, he said that just the last trip to the hearing officer cost $50,000.
"It is not cheap to defend this case."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 624-2739 or firstname.lastname@example.org.